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Maggie Thatcher - The Milk Snatcher

11/04/2013 09:51 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Margaret Thatcher was a political leader who divided opinion in a way that has never been seen before and, possibly, may never occur again; a 'Marmite' politician. If the likes of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne think they are currently unpopular then they should look at the headlines she generated even going back to her days when, in 1971 as secretary of state for education, she decided that free milk to all schoolchildren aged seven or over should be ceased as way of saving money when the country was facing economic problems.

Free milk to all children up to the age of 18 had been introduced after the war as a way to provide nourishment to assist learning. The fact that it had by the 1970s become something of an anachronism was irrelevant. As she was to prove during her tenure as prime minister she was not afraid to take decisions that would lead to conflict and be widely resented.

As a result of the decision on school milk she became known as 'Maggie Thatcher - the milk snatcher'. The thing is that this time very few people - if any - would have predicted that the women with the shrill and posh voice would become not only leader of the Conservatives but a leader of the country during which she would take momentous decisions and take on implacable enemies and, mostly, emerge victorious.

That she became known as 'The Iron Lady' was emblematic of her style. Lady Thatcher may be criticised for being many things but prevarication and reticence was not among them. Whether it was taking on the trade unions who she saw as 'the enemy within' (most especially the miners who she believed had held the country to ransom under her predecessor Edward Heath), the Argentinean junta who invaded the Falkland Islands that practically no-one had ever heard of, European leaders who she famously 'handbagged' to gain a bigger rebate or others such as the Russians who she believed presented a communist threat she showed resolve.

The ultimate irony is that she was never defeated by the electorate but was forced to leave by her own colleagues who in the aftermath of the debacle of the poll tax felt that she had become too aloof and imperious and, by virtue, an electoral liability.

Economically, though, Lady Thatcher's legacy remains.

With resonance to the current leadership of the Tory party she was fiercely opposed to the idea of the welfare state, collectivism and intervention. She began the project that Cameron et al are now completing; denationalisation, though she would never have dared to dismantle the NHS.

Instead her doctrine was explicit monetarism, privatisation through the sale of shares in state-owned industries (which could be bought by anyone) and a belief that there should be a 'home-owning democracy' by the sale of council houses.

This played well to those who believed that Britain had become a sick economy in the 1970s and individual responsibility and freedom had become moribund under the weight of state regulation and control. However, as some commentators have pointed out in recent years, the consequences of her desire to allow markets to operate in a way that was unfettered by rules (so called 'big bang' in 1987), led to a culture of greed and naked individualism that created the origins of the financial crisis of 2007, that we are still suffering from.

Lady Thatcher's legacy is a mixed one. I suspect that in those parts of the country that suffered worst in the cutbacks introduced under her in the 1980s she will not be remembered with fondness. Traditional industries such as mining and shipbuilding no longer exist.

Manufacturing is now a shadow of what it was when she became prime minister in 1979 though it is highly probable that Lady Thatcher had less impact than the increasing threat from international competition from the Far East; most especially Japan.

Whilst she recognised that propping up failing state industries that were uncompetitive was not a route to sustained economic success, many believed that she failed to understand that there was a need to develop an industrial policy that would allow us to regain the dominance we once enjoyed.

As Lord Heseltine, who was so instrumental in creating her downfall might argue, the need for a sensible industrial policy intended to create a sustainable economy is unfinished business.

However, it is testimony to her influence that every political leader ever since is always compared to her. Tony Blair, in particular, was reputed to be a big admirer as, of course, is David Cameron.

Margaret Thatcher may be gone but her place in history is firmly assured.